Tianlin has worked for the Goethe Institute in Bejing and as an assistant director and interpreter for a Chinese-German film production. However, stepping out of her country has been a real eye-opener, she says, in particular regarding human rights issues. Being one of the second-generation Master students at the DW-Akademie, she shared with me some interesting insights from an outside perspective.
by Eira Martens
When Tianlin Xu found out that a Chinese had won the Nobel Peace Prize she decided to post the news to her profile page on RenRen, a popular Chinese social networking site –assumingly an easy-to-do task, but which turned out to be nearly impossible for Tianlin.
Tightened controls of national media
Controls over national media have been tightened after the news of author and human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel prize were released internationally. Chinese cyber patrols use extensive surveillance mechanisms including specific software to filter out sensitive or subversive content, such as stories and messages about the winner of the prestigious prize. Other taboo topics include minority rights in Tibet and Xinjiang, and reporting on the Falung Gong spiritual group or Tiawanese independence.
According to the independent watchdog organization Freedom House, China’s media system is still one of the most restrictive in the world. At the same time, the number of internet users worldwide is increasing, and rapidly reached 420 million in 2010.
“The Chinese government fears the impacts of the Internet on their citizens being exposed to western ideologies,” explains Tianlin. The authorities not only block searches for certain words, but also entire websites and social media platforms such as YouTube, Flickr, Facebook and Twitter.
China’s Press Freedom Index (PFI): at the end of the list
Tianlin is well aware of the situation of Chinese media: “No doubt, there is a lack of free expression.” On the annual Press Freedom Index list, recently published by Reporters Without Borders, China remains at the end, ranking number 171 out of 178 countries.
Media in China is either state-owned or state-controlled. The biggest media corporation in the country is the state monopoly, the Central Chinese Television (CCTV) channel. The country’s only national TV station is directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) through its Central Propaganda Department (CPD) and is therefore considered the mouthpiece of the government.
However, traditional means of state control have become increasingly ineffective. “A lot of young people, for example, use a software that changes their IP address. They can then watch certain videos on YouTube and access Facebook, for example.”
Citizens becoming netizens
The amount and posts of bloggers and mini-bloggers have been growing rapidly over the last years. It was estimated to amount to 200 million people this year. “The Chinese people are exploring a whole new space for themselves. Local news and investigations on sensitive topics or stories critical of the government are spread through the Internet, although they might be deleted within seconds or minutes.” Although the term “citizen journalism” is not spoken in China, in fact, Internet users are already acting as citizen journalists, often without being aware of it. Tianlin is convinced that Web 2.0 is a powerful tool and a great boon for a country like hers.
Economic growth and entertainment over politics
Over the last years, economic growth of the country has been in the focus of local Chinese media. Politics does not seem to play much of a role in the life of young Chinese people. “What we related to politics are long and tedious theories of ‘Maoism’, ‘Deng Xiaping’ or ‘Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents.’”
Market liberalization has allowed the entertainment industry to explode. “It is trying to amuse Chinese people to death,” as Tianlin puts it. A lot of Western movies are shown in China. However, they are censored before being screened in the country. The main regulatory bodies are the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) and the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), which, for example, issues press cards. In fear of job loss, harassment, violence and detention, self-censorship is another mechanism to keep journalists and dissidents under control.
“If you see bad things happening, you have the urge to do something”
Tianlin has begun investigating many ‘public secrets’ since she started living in Germany. “I watched a documentary film about the Tianamen Square massacre [which occurred] in 1989. I found out about many details about this ‘public secret’ that I didn’t know before.“ The more she finds out, the more curious she gets, and wants to know more. “As a journalist, if you see bad things happening, if you see that people at the bottom of society are still suffering from incomplete legislations that only benefit those with power, money or good relationships with authorities, you have the urge to do something about it.”
Although the German media system is close to ideal for Tianlin, at times she thinks German coverage is too critical. Two years ago, during the Tibet crisis in China, students gathered to protest against German media against what turned out to be some fake reports. Journalists took a picture of a Nepalese soldier and a monk from China and put them together, so it looked like the soldier was beating the monk. “I don’t deny that human rights violations have happened in Tibet, but the German media had no right to put those photos together.”
Bridging Chinese and German culture
“There are aspects in both cultures that are good and that I like. Germans are very serious about their work and efficient. Chinese are a little bit random and more indirect.” Tianlin hopes she can become the bridge between German and Chinese culture and media.
Tianlin’s passion lies in visual media and documentary film-making. She is convinced that stories can be told without using explicit language. On 8 October, she was not able to write Liu Xiaobo’s name on her RenRen site. However, being a Chinese “netizen” who has learnt to be creative in getting the message across, in the end her friends knew what she was talking about. And the message kept spreading …